Arikara Yellow Bean

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The Arikara Yellow bean (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) was a primary food crop for the Mandan and Arikara American Indian tribes of the Missouri Valley in the midwestern United States. It is a dry bean renowned for its early maturity and drought resistance, allowing it to survive the short growing season of the Northern Plains. It also stores well with moderate resistance to white mold. The variety has an upright and bushy growth habit, producing a sizeable bean that is slightly larger than the common Pinto bean. The seed color is golden brown with a dark circle surrounding the hilum (the part of the bean once attached to the parent plant). The Arikara Yellow bean is considered a good cooking bean because it has a hard shell and holds it shape during the cooking process. Additionally, it has a relatively short cooking time and is described as having a creamy flavor.   The Arikara people were highly skilled agriculturists and had developed the Arikara Yellow bean to thrive in the difficult climate of the Missouri River Valley. With an early maturation time, these hardy beans complimented a diet that was almost entirely based off of their farming practices including, corn, squash and melon. The variety was first documented by Lewis and Clark on their exploration of the western United States in the early 1800’s. During this expedition, the explorers spent the winter of 1805 in Fort Mandan, North Dakota (in the northern central United States) where they endured average temperatures of -15°C and subsisted in part on Arikara Yellow beans. Upon the return of the expedition to Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, began to grow the Arikara Yellow Beans in his own garden at Monticello. There he described it as “one of the most excellent we have had.”   In the 1880’s Oscar and George Will began to collect and produce seeds from the heirloom crops of the Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan tribes, which they eventually used to form the Oscar Will & Company seed catalog. Unfortunately after being moved to the Fort Berthold reservation near Bismarck, North Dakota, the Arikara tribe has relatively little land to farm. Furthermore, in 1956 the Army Corps of Engineers built Garrison Dam along the Missouri River, which flooded some of the best arable lands of the Arikara.   While the Arikara Yellow Bean has fortunately been preserved by seed banks and small scale farmers, the cultural significance to the Arikara Tribe has been more difficult to maintain as they have lost land over the years. In recent years, the bean has gained popularity in the northeastern United States and Canada because its early maturation suits areas with shorter growing seasons. Today, seeds are mostly produced for home consumption or local farmers’ market sales.   The Arikara Yellow bean is at risk primarily because of its lack of popularity on the commercial market compared to other cooking beans. Furthermore, the heritage of the bean is under appreciated and at risk because of the limited land available to the Arikara tribe to grow their bean. While the early maturity of the Arikara bean makes it unique, it could also pose a threat to its continued production. As early as 2001 were working to cross the Arikara Yellow with other beans to transfer the early maturation characteristic. If these new hybrids become popular, the Arikara Yellow bean could be pushed out of its northern climate agricultural niche. 

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